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Lihaaf [The Quilt] 

O Ismat Chughtai 

Translated from Urdu by M. Asaduddin 

In the last issue of 
manushi, while 
reviewing Deepa 
Mehta’s Fire, we 
briefly described the 
generated by Ismat 
Chugtai’s story Lihaaf 
written in 1941. in this 
issue we present an 
English translation of 
Lihaaf along with an 
extract from her 
autobiography (see 
p.29) which shows 
how Ismat Apa 
handled, in her own 
inimitable style, the 
heat generated by her 
story. Not given to 
playing martyr, she 
won the day by sheer 
guts and a charming 
sense of humour— all 
of which contributed 
as much as her bold 
writing to making her 
a famous and 
immensely popular 
literary heroine very 
early on in life. 


I n winter when I put a quilt 
over myself its shadows on 
the wall seem to sway like an 
elephant. That sets my mind 
racing into the labyrinth of times 
past. Memories come crowding in. 

Sorry. I’m not going to regale 
you with any romantic tale 
about my own quilt. It’s hardly a 
subject for romance. It seems to 
me that the blanket, though 
less comfortable, does not cast 
shadows as terrifying as the quilt, 
dancing on the wall. 

I was then a small girl and 
fought all day with my brothers 
and their friends. Often I 
wondered why the hell I was so 
aggressive. At my age my other 
sisters were busy drawing 
admirers while I fought with any 
boy or girl I ran into! 

This was why when my mother 
went to Agra she left me with an 
adopted sister of hers for about a 
week. She knew well that there 
was no one in that house, not 
even a mouse, with which I could 
get into a fight. It was severe 
punishment for me! So Amma left 
me with Begum Jaan, the same 
lady whose quilt is etched in my 
memory like the scar left by a 
blacksmith’s brand. Her poor 
parents agreed to marry her off to 
the Nawab who was of ‘ripe 
years’ because he was very 
virtuous. No one had ever seen a 
nautch girl or prostitute in his 
house. He had performed Haj and 
helped several others to do it. 

He, however, had a strange 
hobby. Some people are crazy 
enough to cultivate interests like 
breeding pigeons and watching 
cockfights. Nawab Saheb had 
contempt for such disgusting 
sports. He kept an open house for 
students — young, fair and 
slender-waisted boys whose 
expenses were borne by him. 

Having married Begum Jaan he 
tucked her away in the house with 
his other possessions and 
promptly forgot her. The frail, 
beautiful Begum wasted away in 
anguished loneliness. 

One did not know when 
Begum Jaan’s life began — 
whether it was when she 
committed the mistake of being 
born or when she came to the 
Nawab’s house as his bride, 
climbed the four-poster bed and 
started counting her days. Or was 
it when she watched through the 
drawing room door the increasing 
number of firm-calved, supple- 
waisted boys and delicacies 
begin to come for them from the 
kitchen! Begum Jaan would have 
glimpses of them in their 
perfumed, flimsy shirts and feel 
as though she was being raked 
over burning embers! 

Or did it start when she gave 
up on amulets, talismans, black 
magic and other ways of retaining 
the love of her straying husband? 
She arranged for night long 
reading of the scripture but in 
vain. One cannot draw blood from 



a stone. The Nawab didn’t budge 
an inch. Begum Jaan was heart- 
broken and turned to books. But 
she didn’t get relief. Romantic 
novels and sentimental verse 
depressed her even more. She 
began to pass sleepless nights 
yearning for a love that had 
never been. 

She felt like throwing all her 
clothes into the oven. One 
dresses up to impress people. 
Now, the Nawab didn’t have a 
moment to spare. He was too 
busy chasing the gossamer shirts, 
nor did he allow her to go out. 
Relatives, however, would come 
for visits and would stay for 
months while she remained a 
prisoner in the house. These 
relatives, free-loaders all, made 
her blood boil. They helped 
themselves to rich food and got 
warm stuff made for themselves 
while she stiffened with cold 
despite the new cotton in her 
quilt. As she tossed and turned, 
her quilt made newer shapes on 
the wall but none of them held 
promise of life for her. Then why 
must one live? ...such a life as 
Begum Jaan was destined to live. 
But then she started living and 
lived her life to the full. 

It was Rabbu who rescued her 
from the fall. 

Soon her thin body began to 
fill out. Her cheeks began to glow 
and she blossomed in beauty. It 
was a special oil massage that 
brought life back to the half-dead 
Begum Jaan. Sorry, you won’t find 
the recipe for this oil even in the 
most exclusive magazines. 

When I first saw Begum Jaan 
she was around forty. She looked 
a picture of grandeur, reclining on 
the couch. Rabbu sat against her 
back, massaging her waist. A 
purple shawl covered her feet as 
she sat in regal splendour, a 
veritable Maharani. I was 

fascinated by her looks and felt 
like sitting by her for hours, just 
adoring her. Her complexion was 
marble white without a speck of 
ruddiness. Her hair was black and 
always bathed in oil. I had never 
seen the parting of her hair 
crooked, nor a single hair out of 
place. Her eyes were black and 
the elegantly-plucked eyebrows 
seemed like two bows spreading 
over the demure eyes. Her eyelids 
were heavy and eyelashes dense. 
However, the most fascinating 
part of her face were her 
lips — usually dyed in lipstick 
and with a mere trace of down 
on her upper lip. Long hair 
covered her temples. Sometimes 
her face seemed to change shape 
under my gaze and looked 
as though it were the face of a 
young boy... 

Her skin was also white and 
smooth and seemed as though 
someone had stitched it tightly 
over her body. When she 
stretched her legs for the massage 
I stole a glance at their sheen, 
enraptured. She was very tall and 
the ample flesh on her body made 

her look stately and magnificent. 
Her hands were large and smooth, 
her waist exquisitely formed. 
Rabbu used to massage her back 
for hours together. It was as 
though getting the massage was 
one of the basic necessities of 
life. Rather — more important than 
life’s necessities. 

Rabbu had no other 
household duties. Perched on the 
couch she was always massaging 
some part of her body or the other. 
At times I could hardly bear it — 
the sight of Rabbu massaging or 
rubbing at all hours. Speaking for 
myself, if anyone were to touch 
my body so often I would 
certainly rot to death. 

Even this daily massaging was 
not enough. On the days she took 
a bath, she would massage the 
Begum’s body with a variety of 
oils and pastes for two hours. And 
she would massage with such 
vigour that even imagining it 
made me sick. The doors would 
be closed, the braziers would be 
lit and then the session began. 
Usually Rabbu was the only 
person allowed to remain inside 
on such occasions. Other maids 
handed over the necessary things 
at the door, muttering 

In fact — Begum Jaan was 
afflicted with a persistent itch. 
Despite using all the oils and 
balms the itch remained 
stubbornly there. Doctors and 
hakims pronounced that nothing 
was wrong, the skin was 
unblemished. It could be an 
infection under the skin. “These 
doctors are crazy... There’s 
nothing wrong with you. It’s just 
the heat of the body,” Rabbu 
would say, smiling while she gazed 
at Begum Jaan dreamily. 

Rabbu! She was as dark as 
Begum Jaan was fair, as purple as 
the other one was white. She 

No. 110 


seemed to glow like heated iron. 
Her face was scarred by small- 
pox. She was short, stocky and 
had a small paunch. Her hands 
were small but agile, her large, 
swollen lips were always wet. A 
strange, sickening stench exuded 
from her body. And her tiny, puffy 
hands moved dexterously over 
Begum Jaan’s body — now at her 
waist, now at her hips, then 
sliding down her thighs and 
dashing to her ankles. Whenever 
I sat by Begum Jaan my eyes 
would remain glued to those 
roving hands. 

All through the year Begum 
Jaan would wear Hyderbadi jaali 
karga kurtas, white and billowing, 
and brightly coloured pyjamas. 
And even if it was warm and the 
fan was on, she would cover 
herself with a light shawl. She 
loved winter. I, too, liked to be at 
her house in that season. She 
rarely moved out. Lying on the 
carpet she would munch dry fruits 
as Rabbu rubbed her back. The 
other maids were jealous of 
Rabbu. The witch! She ate, sat and 
even slept with Begum Jaan! 
Rabbu and Begum Jaan were the 
subject of their gossip during 
leisure hours. Someone would 
mention their name and the whole 
group would burst into loud 
guffaws. What juicy stories they 
made up about them! Begum Jaan 
was oblivious to all this, cut off 
as she was from the world outside. 
Her existence was centred on 
herself and her itch. 

I have already mentioned that I 
was very young at that time and was 
in love with Begum Jaan. She, too, 
was fond of me. When Amma 
decided to go to Agra, she left me 
with Begum Jaan for a week. She 
knew that left alone in the house I 
would fight with my brothers or 
roam around. The arrangement 
pleased both Begum Jaan and me. 

After all she was Amma’s adopted 
sister! Now the question was — 
where would I sleep? In Begum 
Jaan’s room, naturally. A small bed 
was placed alongside hers. Till ten 
or eleven at night we chatted and 
played “Chance.” Then I went to 
bed. Rabbu was still rubbing her 
back as I fell asleep. “Ugly woman!” 
I thought. I woke up at night and 
was scared. It was pitch dark and 
Begum Jaan’s quilt was shaking 
vigorously as though an elephant 
was struggling inside. 

“Begum Jaan...,” I could barely 
form the words out of fear. The 
elephant stopped shaking and the 
quilt came down. 

“What’s it? Get back to sleep.” 
Begum Jaan’s voice seemed to 
come from somewhere. 

“I’m scared,” I whimpered. 

“Get back to sleep. What’s 
there to be scared of? Recite the 
Ayatul kursi.”* 

“All right...” I began to recite 
the prayer but each time I reached 
ya lamu ma bain... I forgot the 
lines though I knew the entire 

ayat by heart. 

“May I come to you, Begum 

“No, child... Get back to sleep.” 
Her tone was rather abrupt. Then 
I heard two people whispering. Oh 
God, who was this other person? 
I was really afraid. 

“Begum Jaan... I think there’s 
a thief in the room.” 

“Go to sleep, child... There’s 
no thief,” this was Rabbu’s voice. 
I drew the quilt over my face and 
fell asleep. 

By morning I had totally 
forgotten the terrifying scene 
enacted at night. I have always been 
superstitious — night fears, sleep- 
walking and sleep-talking were daily 
occurrences in my childhood. 
Everyone used to say that I was 
possessed by evil spirits. So the 
incident slipped from my memory. 
The quilt looked perfectly innocent 
in the morning. 

But the following night I woke 
up again and heard Begum Jaan and 
Rabbu arguing in a subdued tone. I 
could not hear what they were 
saying and what was the upshot of 
the tiff but I heard Rabbu crying. 
Then came the slurping sound of a 
cat licking a plate... I was scared and 
got back to sleep. 

The next day Rabbu went to see 
her son, an irascible young man. 
Begum Jaan had done a lot to help 
him out — bought him a shop, got 
him a job in the village. But nothing 
really pleased him. He stayed with 
Nawab Saheb for some time, who 
got him new clothes and other 
gifts; but he ran away for no good 
reason and never came back, even 
to see Rabbu... 

Rabbu had gone to a relative’s 
house to see him. Begum Jaan was 
reluctant to let her go but realised 
that Rabbu was helpless. So she 
didn’t prevent her from going. 

* Verse from the Quran read to ward off evil. 




All through the day Begum 
Jaan was out of her element. Her 
body ached at every joint, but she 
couldn’t bear anyone’s touch. 
She didn’t eat anything and kept 
moping in the bed the whole day. 

“Shall I rub your back, Begum 
Jaan...?” I asked zestfully as I 
shuffled the deck of cards. She 
began to peer at me. 

“Shall I, really?” I put away 
the cards and began to rub her 
back while Begum Jaan lay there 
quietly. Rabbu was due to return 
the next day... but she didn’t. 
Begum Jaan grew more and more 
irritable. She drank cup after cup 
of tea and her head began to ache. 

I again began rubbing her 
back which was smooth as the 
top of a table. I rubbed gently 
and was happy to be of some 
use to her. 

“A little harder... open the 
straps,” Begum Jaan said. 

“Here... a little below the 
shoulder... that’s right... Ah! what 
pleasure...” She expressed her 
satisfaction between sensuous 
breaths. “A little further...,” 
Begum Jaan instructed though her 
hands could easily reach that 
spot. But she wanted me to stroke 
it. How proud I felt! “Here... oh, 
oh, you’re tickling me... Ah!” She 
smiled. I chatted away as I 
continued to massage her. 

“I'll send you to the market 
tomorrow... What do you want? 
...A doll that sleeps or wakes up 
as you want?” 

“No, Begum Jaan... I don’t 
want dolls... Do you think I’m still 
a child?” 

“So you’re an old woman 
then,” she laughed. “If not a doll 
I’ll get you a babua*... Dress it 
up yourself. I’ll give you a lot of 
rags. Okay?” 

“Okay,” I answered. 

* A Male Doll. 

“Here,” She would take my 
hand and place it where it itched 
and I, lost in the thought of the 
babua , kept on scratching her 
listlessly while she talked. 

“Listen... you need some more 
frocks. I’ll send for the tailor 
tomorrow and ask him to make 
new ones for you. Your mother 
has left some dress material.” 

“I don’t want that red 
material... It looks so cheap,” I 
was chattering, oblivious of 
where my hands travelled. Begum 
Jaan lay still... Oh God! 1 jerked 
my hand away. 

“Hey girl, watch where your 
hands are... You hurt my ribs.” 
Begum Jaan smiled mischievously. 
I was embarrassed. 

“Come here and lie down beside 
me...” She made me lie down with 
my head on her arm “How skinny 
you are... your ribs are coming out.” 
She began counting my ribs. 

I tried to protest. 

“Come on, I’m not going to eat 
you up. How tight this sweater is! 
And you don’t have a warm vest 
on.” I felt very uncomfortable. 

“How many ribs does one 
have?” She changed the topic. 

“Nine on one side, ten on the 
other,” I blurted out my school 
hygiene, rather incoherently. 

“Take away your hand... Let’s 
see... one, two, three...” 

I wanted to run away, but she 
held me tightly. I tried to wriggle 
out and Begum Jaan began to 
laugh loudly. To this day 
whenever I am reminded of her 
face at that moment I feel jittery. 
Her eyelids had drooped, her 
upper lip showed a black shadow 
and tiny beads of sweat sparkled 
on her lips and nose despite the 
cold. Her hands were cold like ice 
but clammy as though the skin 
had been stripped off. She had put 
away the shawl and in the fine 
karga kurta her body shone like 
a ball of dough. The heavy gold 
buttons of the kurta were open 
and swinging to one side. 

It was evening and the room 
was getting enveloped in 
darkness . A strange fright 
overwhelmed me. Begum Jaan’s 
deep-set eyes focused on me and 
I felt like crying. She was pressing 
me as though I were a clay doll 
and the odour of her warm body 
made me almost throw up. But she 

No. 110 


was like one possessed. I could 
neither scream nor cry. 

After some time she stopped 
and lay back exhausted. She was 
breathing heavily and her face 
looked pale and dull. I thought 
she was going to die and rushed 
out of the room... 

Thank God Rabbu returned 
that night. Scared, I went to bed 
rather early and pulled the quilt 
over me. But sleep evaded me 
for hours. 

Amma was taking so long to 
return from Agra! I had got so 
terrified of Begum Jaan that I 
spent the whole day in the 
company of maids. 1 felt too 
nervous to step into her room. 
What could I have said to anyone? 
That I was afraid of Begum Jaan? 
Begum Jaan who was so attached 
to me? 

That day Rabbu and Begum 
Jaan had a tiff again. This did not 
augur well for me because Begum 
Jaan’s thoughts were immediately 
directed towards me. She realised 
that I was wandering outdoors in 
the cold and might die of 
pneumonia! “Child, do you want 
to put me to shame in public? If 
something should happen to you, 
it’ll be a disaster.” She made me 
sit beside her as she washed 
her face and hands in the water 
basin. Tea was set on a tripod next 
to her. 

“Make tea, please... and give me 
a cup,” she said as she wiped her 
face with a towel. “I’ll change in the 

I took tea while she dressed. 
During her body massage she sent 
for me repeatedly. I went in, keeping 
my face turned away and ran out 
after doing the errand. When she 
changed her dress I began to feel 
jittery. Turning my face away from 
her I sipped my tea. 

My heart yearned in anguish 
for Amma. This punishment was 

much more severe than I deserved 
for fighting with my brothers. 
Amma always disliked my playing 
with boys. Now tell me, are they 
man-eaters that they would eat up 
her darling? And who are the 
boys? My own brothers and their 
puny, little friends! She was a 
believer in strict segregation for 
women. And Begum Jaan here was 
more terrifying than all the loafers 
of the world. Left to myself, I 
would have run out to the street — 
even further away! But I was 
helpless and had to stay there 
much against my wish. 

Begum Jaan had decked 
herself up elaborately and 
perfumed herself with the warm 
scent of attars. Then she began 
to shower me with affection. “I 
want to go home,” was my answer 
to all her suggestions. Then I 
started crying. 

“There, there... come near me... 
I’ll take you to the market today. 

But I kept up the refrain of 
going home. All the toys and 
sweets of the world had no 
interest for me. 

“Your brothers will bash you 
up, you witch,” She tapped me 
affectionately on my cheek. 

“Let them.” 

“Raw mangoes are sour to 
taste. Begum Jaan,” hissed 
Rabbu, burning with jealousy. 

Then Begum Jaan had a fit. The 
gold necklace she had offered me 
moments ago flew into pieces. 
The muslin net dupatta was torn 
to shreds. And her hair-parting 
which was never crooked was a 
tangled mess. 

“Oh! Oh! Oh!” She screamed 
between spasms. I ran out. 

Begum Jaan regained her senses 
after much fuss and ministrations. 
When I peered into the room on 
tiptoe, I saw Rabbu rubbing her 
body, nestling against her waist. 

“Take off your shoes,” Rabbu 
said while stroking Begum Jaan’s 
ribs. Mouse-like, I snuggled into 
my quilt. 

There was a peculiar noise 
again. In the dark Begum Jaan’s 
quilt was once again swaying like 
an elephant. “Allah! Ah!...” I 
moaned in a feeble voice. The 
elephant inside the quilt heaved 
up and then sat down. I was mute. 
The elephant started to sway 
again. I was scared stiff. However, 
I had resolved to switch on the 
light that night, come what may. 
The elephant started fluttering 
once again and it seemed as 
though it was trying to squat. 
There was sound of someone 
smacking her lips, as though 
savouring a tasty pickle. Now I 
understood! Begum Jaan had not 
eaten anything the whole day. 
And Rabbu, the witch, was a 
notorious glutton. She must be 
polishing off some goodies. 
Flaring my nostrils I scented the 
air. There was only the smell of 
attar, sandalwood and henna, 
nothing else. 

Once again the quilt started 
swinging. 1 tried to lie down still 
but the quilt began to assume 
such grotesque shapes that I was 
thoroughly shaken. It seemed as 
though a large frog was inflating 
itself noisily and was about to 
leap on me. 

“Aa... Ammi...” I whimpered 
courageously. No one paid any 
heed. The quilt crept into my 
brain and began to grow larger. 
I stretched my leg nervously to 
the other side of the bed to 
grope for the switch and turned 
it on. The elephant somersaulted 
inside the quilt which deflated 
immediately. During the somer- 
sault the corner of the quilt rose 
by almost a foot... 

Good God! I gasped and 
plunged into my bed. □ 



On Account of Continuing Demand— 
Yet another printing of 

In Search of Answers I In Search of 


Editors: Madhu Kish war and Ruth Vanita 

Third Edition: Manohar Publishers & Distributors, New Delhi, 1996 

This book provides a selection of the most bold and eloquent reports 
that appeared in Manushi during its early years. 

The causes of women’s oppression are analysed in a historical 
perspective, with the political, social and economic dimensions 
skilfully related. The book has an all-India perspective, with studies 
based on different regions, castes, classes, and communities. 

260 pages Hardbound 

Price: Rs 280 (India) • All other countries: US$ 20 
Available from Manushi. 

Send payment by cheque, draft or MO in the name of Manushi Trust 

C-174, Lajpat Nagar-1, New Delhi-110024 

Special 10% Discount for Manushi Subscribers 

No. 110